Nova: Japan’s Killer Quake

In its worst crisis since World War II, Japan faces disaster on an epic scale: a death toll likely in the tens of thousands, massive destruction of homes and businesses, shortages of water and power, and the specter of nuclear meltdown. With exclusive footage, NOVA captures the unfolding human drama and offers a clear-headed investigation of what triggered the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear crisis. Can science and technology ever prevent devastation in the face of overwhelmingly powerful forces of nature?
Year Released
Series Title
Date Released
May 2011
PBS (Public Broadcasting System)
Average: 4 (1 vote)


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Japan's Killer Quake

Field of Interest/Specialty: History
Posted On: 11/29/2014

Larissa Sturm
Norwin High School, Cultures of the World 10th Grade
Film Review of Japan’s Killer Quake- Nova/PBS Documentary
The documentary Japan’s Killer Quake is a wonderful resource that showcases how Japan can be vulnerable to one of Mother Nature’s most destructive forces. While Japan is no stranger to earthquakes, the country proved to be no match for the 9.0 earthquake that generated one of the most powerful tsunamis Japan or the world had seen since the 2001 Indian Ocean tsunami. While the documentary showed great footage of the quake itself and the destructive waves afterward, it showed very little regarding the Japanese people. Only one small segment showed how the Japanese people are strong and will overcome something so great.
The film begins with letting the audience know that the March 11, 2011 earthquake was the largest earthquake to strike Japan in one thousand years. Later, it is made known that Japan had never had an earthquake of 9.0 recorded. Cities in the north like Fukushima and Sendai were some of the first to feel the quake. Tokyo, Japan’s largest city knew the quake as on its way due to the early warning system that they have in place. Even though the people had sixty seconds to prepare for the inevitable shaking, they had no idea how powerful the shaking would be and that it would last for about five minutes. While the quake was incredibly strong, Japan is very well prepared for earthquakes and the buildings there were able to withstand the strong P and S waves. For the people of Japan, they knew that several things were going to occur after such a powerful earthquake. There would be the inevitable aftershocks but first and more frightening there would be the terrifying the destructive wall of water that accompanies an earthquake so great, the tsunami.
A tsunami is very different than a normal wave since it is literally the entire ocean moving toward the land at a speed that unimaginable to most. While the buildings in Japan survived the cataclysmic earthquakes, they did not stand a chance at the wall of water that was about to come crashing into them. Many towns in Japan experienced a thirty foot wall of water rushing towards them. Several towns were prepared from tsunamis of the past and had built thirty foot walls around their cities to protect them. However, the ground in Japan dropped from the shear intensity of the quake and the walls proved to be completely useless. If people did not flee to high ground in time they were simply washed away with the debris. The massive wall of water struck first in the north, then the south, then again in the north. Towns like Sendai are mainly composed of low lying farmland. This allowed the tsunami to flow inland for miles since there was nothing stopping it. In Fukushima, the nuclear power plant there suffered great damage from the waves and ended up causing a near meltdown of the power plant. After the wall of water comes in, it must go back out to sea. This creates a great suction as well as whirlpools. Small boats out to sea that had escaped the water initially now risked being sucked into the sea.
After the quake and the tsunami, Japan had to deal with fires that could not be contained due to lack of resources and man power. Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless and tens of thousands of people were missing. Japan was weak and vulnerable in the days following the disaster. It was then that over five hundred aftershocks hit the island causing more panic for the people living there. Some towns in Japan were literally wiped off the map and even mountain communities felt the effects of the tsunami since rivers were pushed upward and created lakes where there had once been land.
The tsunami that stuck Japan also spread out into the Pacific Ocean and threatened Hawaii and the west coast of the United States. While the wall of water was only three feet high when it hit Hawaii, it caused millions of dollars in damage. The good news for Hawaii was that there was no loss of life since it was warned of the incoming waves from the Pacific Ocean tsunami warning center. California also experienced some effects of the tsunami but nothing major. This devastating event opened up the eyes of many around the globe. There are fault lines all around the world but the Pacific Rim is the most active around the world. Tokyo in particular sits near an active fault zone and could suffer the same fate as those in the north. Also, the United States weaknesses on its west coast were brought to light since the Cascade area fault in the Pacific Northwest is similar in size to the fault that ruptured off the coast of Japan.
Overall, the documentary was very beneficial when it came to explaining how an earthquake forms and how destructive such a large quake can be. If a country/people are not prepared for such an event, it can be beyond any kind of destruction imaginable. While the film did point out that Japan was very prepared for such an event, it was not prepared enough. I feel that if an educator wanted to show this for geological or technological reasons it would be a great resource. However, to use it to show anything historically or culturally would not be a great idea since it has nothing to show.